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Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

The return of Little Steven

Little StevenNeed cheering up in these dark times? Look no further. Little Steven’s Soulfire — in which Steve Van Zandt returns to his true vocation after his adventures with The Sopranos and Lilyhammer — is a record that could start a party in an empty house.

This October it’ll be 35 years since Van Zandt brought his Disciples of Soul to London, promoting his first solo album, Men Without Women. Their appearance at the Marquee was not just one of the best gigs of a very good year but one of the most exhilarating nights I can remember in the old Wardour Street premises. A 10-piece band, with Dino Danelli, the former Young Rascal, on drums, they kicked through great songs like “Forever”, “Until the Good is Gone” and “Angel Eyes”, with an encore of “Can I Get a Witness”. Van Zandt’s singing reminded me then, as it does now, of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend: he might not possess the power or technique of a real lead singer, but there’s an honesty and a directness in his delivery that has its own special value.

Soulfire is the first album under his own name in 18 years, and mostly it sticks to the horns-and-Hammond template of the E Street Band. Some of the dozen songs are familiar: they include “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” from the repertoire of Southside Johnny, and “Standing in the Line of Fire”, written with Bruce Springsteen for Gary U. S. Bonds, now with a great spaghetti-western intro. Others are new, like “The City Weeps Tonight”, a meticulous evocation of East Coast doowop with the Persuasions providing support. “Down and Out in New York City” is a surprise cover of a song written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon in 1973 for James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack album, riding a laconic street-funk rhythm with wah-wah and chicken-scratch rhythm guitars, a Rhodes with its mirror shades on, and violins voiced in octaves: the full blaxploitation menu, in fact, and very well executed. Steve also gives us a howling Dylanesque version of “Saint Valentine’s Day”, first recorded by a Norwegian band called the Cocktail Slippers in 2009 and more recently heard in David Chase’s film Not Fade Away.

I started loving this album as soon as I put it on. It’s not bursting with originality, to say the least, but sometimes that’s not what you need. It’s good-time music with a heart and a human voice, made by a man with a profound love and understanding of rock and soul, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

In the Summer of Love

Counter culture 2I’m looking at some 50-year-old cuttings from a morning newspaper called the Nottingham Guardian Journal. The first of them is dated Saturday, May 13, 1967. It’s from a page called The Younger Set, containing pieces on fashion and music. The reviews include Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” (“magnificent… the most creative musician in Britain today”) and Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” (“reaffirms my faith in soul music”). A week later we have the Doors’ debut album (“a very cool, tight sound”), Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” (“a very mind-blowing cut from from one of the leading new-wave groups”) and, er, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (“completely moronic”).

The Guardian Journal died in 1973 and is remembered only for having been the place where Graham Greene learned the craft of sub-editing before leaving for London to join The Times. And in 1967 it carried these reviews, along with others of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pet Sounds, Are You Experienced and Vanilla Fudge’s first album. The editor and his senior staff didn’t know much about pop music, and didn’t much like what little they knew, but they knew they had to have some of it and that there was someone in the office who was known to take an interest. That would be me, aged 20.

It was quite a year — although not, in my view, the equal of 1965 or even 1966 in terms of quality. But I wouldn’t argue with those making the case for its historic value, and now along come Harvey Kubernik and Jon Savage — two colleagues of mine from the Melody Maker in the ’70s, as it happens — to sum it up very nicely: the former in 1967 — A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love , a coffee-table book containing nice photographs and a quantity of first-hand testimony, and the latter in Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year Pop Divided, a two-CD compilation of some of the year’s more interesting tracks.

Summer of LoveHarvey’s book moves mostly between San Francisco and Los Angeles on its journey from January to December, with detours to Monterey and London. Some of the oral history — from backroom people like Andrew Loog Oldham, Shel Talmy and Bones Howe as well as stars such as Jerry Garcia, Al Kooper and Carlos Santana — is of rich in opinion and anecdote, despite being mostly divided into bite-sized chunks and arranged around the visual material. There are some real gems, as when the actress Peggy Lipton, one of the great beauties of the time, tells Kubernik about her Monterey Pop Festival experience: “There was a light drizzle and we went to hear Ravi Shankar. I remember I left my body.”

It makes a nice companion to two other oral histories, Jonathon Green’s epic Days in the Life and Barry Miles’s In the Sixties, which tell the story of the era from the British perspective. (The Roy Lichtenstein pastiche at the top of this piece accompanied the publication of an extract from Days in the Life in The Times on the book’s original appearance as a hard-back in 1988; it was commissioned jointly by me and the paper’s then art director, David Driver.)

Among the 48 tracks on Jon Savage’s meticulously compiled and annotated CDs are some unexpected psychedelic gems and curios, such as the Marmalade’s “I See the Rain”, Tintern Abbey’s “Vacuum Cleaner” and the Third Bardo’s “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time”. The more obvious choices include the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, Captain Beefheart’s “Yellow Brick Road”, Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr Soul”. There are several fine examples of soul music fighting back with Joe Tex’s “Show Me”, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat Pt 1”, the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger”, the Four Tops’ “You Keep Running Away” and Aretha’s “Respect” and “Chain of Fools”.

So there was certainly plenty going on in 1967, and not just in the obvious places. A very minor example: in Nottingham, a friend of mine organised a Freak Out at the Co-operative Arts Centre, with the Social Deviants on stage, Scorpio Rising projected on the wall, and a bubble machine. The young Paul Smith accepted 25 shillings to make me a blue kaftan for the occasion, with floral trim and armholes so tight that I couldn’t move my upper limbs; not much good for letting it all hang out, never mind leaving your body.

In this morning’s Observer magazine, five participants in San Francisco’s Summer of Love were invited to reflect on its significance. Peter Coyote, a co-founder of the “anarchist gang” (his phrase) known as the Diggers, comes up with an interesting verdict: “The counter-culture may have lost every political battle — we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism, we didn’t end imperialism. But on a cultural level, we won every single battle. There’s no place today in the western world where there’s not an organic food movement, a women’s movement, and environmental movement.”

I’m pretty sure that I never left my body at all during 1967, but then I never got to listen to Ravi Shankar in a light drizzle with Peggy Lipton.

* Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year that Pop Divided is out now on Ace Records. Harvey Kubernik’s 1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love is published by Sterling Books.

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

‘A Porky Prime Cut’

a-porky-prime-cutThere’s an interesting new poem by Michael Hofmann in the latest issue of the New Yorker. It’s called “Lisburn Road” and it’s about surveying the scattered detritus of a life. In the final stanza there’s a reference that might be puzzling to some of the magazine’s readers: The ‘Porky Prime Cut’ greetings etched in the lead-off grooves…

The poem has begun with a mention of “A few yards of vinyl records, well thumbed.” The allusion to greetings etched in the run-out grooves (as I would call them) refers to the signature of the cutting engineer who mastered the albums in question. “Porky” was George Peckham, then the finest exponent of his craft in the UK music industry.

Liverpool-born, and a member of the Fourmost before becoming an engineer at the Apple studio in Savile Row, Peckham cut masters in the 1970s at studios on Riding House Street, around the corner from the BBC’s Broadcasting House, and then at IBC in Portland Place, also nearby. He built a reputation and soon, with the record business in full spate, he had more work than he could handle.

When did the habit of etching graffiti into the space around run-out groove begin? Maybe with Phil Spector, who scratched words recording his relationships with his first two wives, Annette Merar and Veronica Bennett, into his 45s. For a while, John Lennon emulated him with a “John and Yoko” message.

“A Porky Prime Cut” was not Peckham’s only signature: “Pecko” and “Pecko Duck” were others. The difference between his marks and those of others was that he was not one of the people who had actually made the music within the grooves, but a technician. For record buyers of a certain level of obsessive interest in the minutiae of the 1970s, they became part of a rich landscape of signs and meanings.

* Michael Hofmann’s “Lisburn Road” appears in the March 6 issue of the New Yorker.

‘Alone with Chrissie Hynde’

chrissie-in-car-in-akron-1There’s an hour-long Arena documentary about Chrissie Hynde on BBC4 this week. During a preview of a longer 90-minute version the other day, I remembered that what I always liked about her was the subtlety underlying the ferocious four-piece rock and roll attack of the Pretenders’ music. It was present in February 1979, when — at the urging of my friend and Melody Maker colleague Mark Williams — I went to see them at the Railway Arms in West Hampstead, a room once known as Klooks Kleek but then renamed the Moonlight Club.

Mark had seen them a week before and had already written a rave review in the paper. I followed up with another one a week later — somewhat unusual, certainly for an unknown band, but they were so extraordinary that it seemed worthwhile. Before the end of the month Mark had written a terrific feature, outlining their background: how Chrissie had left Akron, Ohio for London, hooked up with the NME crowd and the punks congregating at the McLaren/Westwood Sex shop in the King’s Road, formed a band with three guys from Hereford, and copped a deal with Real Records, which had the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic promotional muscle behind it. Mark’s piece went on the cover, giving them greater prominence than the news of Dylan’s forthcoming UK tour, a piece on Siouxsie Sioux in Berlin, an interview with Dennis Bovell, and an examination of the future of disco by Davitt Sigerson.

It’s always nice to be knocked out by something new. The set I heard in West Hampstead featured the razor-sharp rock and roll of “The Wait” and “Tattooed Love Boys”, but the song that really grabbed my attention, and suggested that there might be a real originality at work, was “Private Life”. A hypnotic song set against a slow, spare reggae rhythm, it had a brusquely dismissive lyric that demonstrated Hynde’s gift for skewering complex, uncomfortable and sometimes unreliable or contradictory emotions: “Attachment to obligation through guilt and regret / Shit, that’s so wet…” Grace Jones did a good version a couple of years later, with Sly and Robbie, but the original was the one that cut deepest.

Hynde could be brutal, but the subsequent hit singles “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid” quickly showed us the unusual variety of emotional shadings — including tenderness — at her command. She was already a great singer, her strong, deep voice given its impact by a distinctive quaver and an ability to make a note that you didn’t think she was going to reach. And she looked the part, of course: a monochrome dream of black fringe, waistcoat and jeans against a ruffled white shirt.

When she was approached to make the documentary, Hynde said she wouldn’t talk about personal topics since she had covered all that ground in her recent autobiography (Reckless, Ebury Press, 2015). But she agreed to spend time with the director, Nicola Roberts, and the cameraman/editor, Alex Jones, last summer, inviting them not just to her home in London but on trips to Paris, New York and Nashville, and back to Akron, where she could hardly help but talk about her early years, although she is at her most interesting when reflecting on her life today.

Throughout the film she’s as sharp as you’d expect, occasionally self-mocking and, in an appearance on the comedian Sandra Bernhard’s radio show, endearingly silly. There’s a lot of music, with a bias towards the songs from the Pretenders’ latest album, some of them played with the current line-up, but also rewarding stuff from the archive, like a storming version of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” with the original quartet augmented by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

It’s more than a little sad to watch the footage in which James Honeyman-Scott, one of the most creative lead guitarists of his generation, and Pete Farndon, the bass guitarist, are visibly diminished by the addictions that would end their lives, Honeyman-Scott at 25 in 1982 and Farndon — who brought the musicians into Hynde’s orbit — at 30 the following year. That first band was a wonderful outfit, full of the spirit and inventiveness so apparent in their recordings together.

There’s another noise you hear in this film: the subdued growl emanating from the V8 engine of the metallic green 1970s Pontiac in which Hynde tours Akron, revisiting the topography of her adolescence. It’s the almost-vanished soundtrack of the American highway.

* An hour-long cut of Alone with Chrissie Hynde is on BBC4 this Friday, February 10, at 9pm. The full 90-minute version will be transmitted later in the year.

Earth Air Water… and Fire

michael-andrews-arthur-brownIt came as a bit of a surprise to walk into a high-end London art gallery this week and discover a small portrait of Arthur Brown, the madcap rocker of the late ’60s, taking its place in an extensive exhibition of the work of the late English painter Michael Andrews.

Andrews was born in Norwich in 1928 and died in London in 1995. A friend and contemporary of Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, in 1962 he painted a famous group portrait of the denizens of Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room in Soho, for which he also provided a large Tuscan landscape of irregular shape, to be hung on a wall. He was particularly good at social groups and party scenes (as in The Deer Park, All Night Long, and the triptych Good and Bad at Games, none of them, unlike the two Colony Room pieces, included this exhibition).

In later years, however, he concentrated on landscapes and paintings of the natural world, which is why the exhibition of 61 of his works at the Gagosian gallery is titled Earth Air Water. There are several large paintings of Ayers Rock (nowadays also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru), the River Thames and the Scottish moorlands, where he painted men in tweeds stalking and shooting deer. The intention of the show must be raise his status closer to that of his more celebrated fellow regulars at the Colony Room, something probably denied him by his own modest nature.

He was a perceptive portraitist, and one of the most striking works in the show is a self-portrait from 1988, that of a man with pleasant but unremarkable looks wearing an expression of restrained anxiety. The painting of Brown was made in 1967, when the extrovert singer was still an underground hero and a few months away from an appearance on Top of the Pops, promoting his latest release with flames apparently emerging from his head. Given the theme of that record, Brown’s one big hit, the exhibition’s curator might have added a fourth element to the title of his show: Fire.

I recognised Brown’s distinctive features straight away, of course, but an adjacent portrait — of similar size and vintage — puzzled me.

michael-andrews-dave-brubeck

Then I looked at the catalogue: it was Dave Brubeck, painted from a photograph. Both portraits are listed as “studies” for works on a larger scale. They play very minor roles in the show, but it was certainly nice to bump into them on a rainy morning in Mayfair.

* Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water is at the Gagosian gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until March 25. The painting of Arthur Brown is from a private collection; that of Dave Brubeck is owned by the Arts Council Collection.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

Reconsidering Frank Zappa

zappa-film-1In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.

I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.

He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.

But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”

Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.

The return of Shakin’ Stevens

shakin-stevensThe first time I was impressed by Shakin’ Stevens was in 1970, while idly playing through his debut album with his group, the Sunsets, a bunch of rockabilly hounds from Cardiff, on the cheap sound system in the listening room at the Melody Maker‘s old Fleet Street office. Called A Legend, produced by Dave Edmunds and released on the Parlophone label, it contained one track that I found I needed to hear over and over again: a wild version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin'”, originally written and recorded by the bandleader Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, in the idiom of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, and given a definitive rockabilly restyling five years later by Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio, with the great Paul Burlison on guitar. It might be a heretical view, but I found the lubricious pounding of Stevens’ version even more powerful than Burnette’s hallowed recording.

Seven years later, while casting his musical Elvis!, the great Jack Good — creator of Six-Five Special, Oh Boy! and Shindig! — selected Stevens to play one of the show’s three incarnations of Presley. Tim Whitnall played the boy Elvis, Stevens played the “perfect” Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”, and P. J. Proby played the late Elvis. Each of them fitted his role perfectly, and I’ll never forget the impact of the finale, when Whitnall and Stevens stood with heads bowed as Proby, in full Elvis-in-Vegas costume, sang “American Trilogy” from a pulpit against a backdrop of the film of the endless motorcade of white Cadillacs at Presley’s funeral.

At that time Stevens was still virtually unknown to the general public. But the show was a success, running for two years at the (now demolished) Astoria on Charing Cross Road, and soon afterwards he finally made his breakthrough as a solo artist, exploiting his voice and his looks — a cross between Ricky Nelson and Chris Isaak — with a string of pop hits including “This Ole House” and “Green Door”. Since then he’s been seen on reality shows, oldies packages and charity galas. In 2010 he was in hospital for several weeks after suffering a heart attack while gardening.

When I saw that he had a new album out last month, I was reminded of how much I liked that “Train Kept A-Rollin'” and his performance as Elvis. So I listened to it, and was pleasantly surprised. Echoes of Our Times is, at least in part, an attempt to write songs inspired by his family history, which he traces back to Cornish copper miners. That’s how the album begins, and other songs refer to the experience of family members — including his father — in the First World War, to a great-grandfather’s vocation as a Primitive Methodist minister in Wales, and to a grandmother’s work with the Salvation Army.

It’s as if, back at the very start of his career, he’d heard Music from Big Pink and decided to take that route. An excellent band features banjos and harmonicas and mandolins and a harmonium and a general feeling of handmade quality, occasionally broadening to include a small horn section and a cello. Shaky sings very well, with great conviction. Time has abraded his tone a little, which is no bad thing; curiously, on different songs he reminded of both Lennon (“To Spread the Word”) and McCartney (“The Fire in Her Blood”), but mostly he sounds like himself. Not all the material is great, but “Suffer Little Children” is a really fine southern-style blues-ballad, on which his voice has something of the strained urgency of Don Henley. “Train of Time”, all hurtling rockabilly twang and slap, is another great railroad song to put alongside the one I still cherish from his very first recording session.

So has Shakin’ Stevens, at the age of 68, transformed himself into the Welsh Robbie Robertson? That might be putting it a bit strongly. But Echoes of Our Times is thoughtful, enjoyable and substantial enough to make posterity significantly modify its judgement of the nature and scale of his talent.

* Photograph: HEC Records